Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Page 1360

Garovel intervened again. ‘Why so curious?

Melchor’s face became abruptly apologetic. “Oh. Forgive me. I merely wished to know if Hector is old enough to remember the Jungle Wars. I sometimes forget that age can be a sensitive subject where security and morale are of concern. If you would prefer not to tell me, I understand.”

Why do you bring up the Jungle Wars?’ said Garovel.

Melchor eyed the young Atreyan lord. “The way they talk about you... There is a mythos growing around you.”

Hector just returned the man’s stare, waiting for elaboration.

“I know what that is like,” said Melchor. “The Jungle Wars were when they first began to call me Darktide. It is a strange thing, is it not? Or am I mistaken in assuming that this is a new development for you?”

Hector needed a moment to consider those questions. He hadn’t been expecting them, certainly. “Ah... yeah. I’m not, um... I don’t know if...” He shut his mouth and clenched his jaw, wanting very much to not fumble over his own tongue right now.

Melchor seemed to take that as a hint. “Nevermind. It is none of my business.” He didn’t move, but he looked like he was ready to turn and walk away now.

And a surge of silent panic gripped Hector’s chest. This wasn’t what he’d wanted at all. “No,” he said almost involuntarily as his mind grasped for a way to follow it up.

Something. Anything. Maybe it would be easier if he didn’t talk about himself.

“...Tell me about yourself,” Hector ended up saying. And after hearing his own words, he wanted to bury his face in his hands. That was way too broad of a thing to say, and it hadn’t answered either of the man’s questions.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Page 1359

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The man had been unconscious since Dunehall--and prior to that, he’d been unconscious since Luzo. Hector had never met him properly, let alone spoken to him.

Judging from the way Melchor was moving, the man was still coping with considerable soreness, though he didn’t look terribly exhausted.

But maybe that was just because Hector was comparing him to Zeff.

“Hello,” said Melchor. The man’s reaper hovered silently behind him, but Hector couldn’t recall his name.

Hector lowered the number of cubes around him down to eight. He tried not to let himself feel intimidated by one of his allies, but this man was the oldest Rainlord here by a good margin. “Hi...”

“I hear I have you to thank for my life.”

Hector wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he decided to change the subject. “...I’m glad to see you on your feet again.”

Silence arrived.

Maybe that was the wrong thing to say. Shit. Maybe he’d sounded too stiff or distant when he’d said it. Double shit.

Garovel came to his rescue. ‘How’s your family doing? We haven’t heard much from them, and we’ve been worried.

“Ah... I’m afraid I am not as knowledgeable on that subject as I would like to be.”

Oh,’ said Garovel. ‘Of course. You’ve been asleep. I apologize if I overreached.

Don’t be silly,’ said Melchor’s reaper. ‘What is your name, by the way? I never did learn it.

Garovel. And yours?

Orric. Pleased to meet you.

Likewise.

Hector saw the expression on Melchor’s face, the flat and hollow gaze at the ground. “...How are you doing?” he asked. “It must be a lot to take in.”

Melchor exhaled a heavy breath. “Yes. Quite a lot.”

Hector wanted to say something more, ask him... something, but he couldn’t think of anything.

After a short while, however, Melchor turned to look at him. “How old are you, Lord Goffe?”

This question again. Somehow, he felt less prepared to answer it every time he heard it. “Uh...”

Page 1358

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In the final tale, the foreigner was actually a revolutionary from Acacero who’d abandoned the cause. He claimed to have stumbled upon the treasure after fleeing a great battle, but he never provided any kind of proof. The only reason the fever took hold in the city was because so many fools and desperate losers were eager to believe him.

And perhaps even more worrisome than any of these stories was the fact nobody knew what this foreigner looked like. According to Diego and Carlos, many people claimed to have met and even spoken to the foreigner, yet none could describe him or provide any physical evidence of his existence. No videos. No pictures. Not even a name.

All in all, it didn’t bode well for the treasure’s existence, and it was no small wonder why the hunters grew more discouraged by the day. With no solid leads to go on and so much danger afoot, the hunters had begun transforming into little more than territorial gangs whom civilians hired for protection.

The few true hopefuls who remained would be traveling with the Rainlords. The prevailing thought among them seemed to be that the only place left to look was in the tunnel where only a handful had dared go before. The tunnel near a worm nest. The only tunnel that led to Capaporo.

Naturally.

And now, at the end of four quiet days of training and relative relaxation, Hector found himself waiting to board another train, this one more than twice the size of the last as it had to carry Rainlords, hunters, militiamen, prisoners, and three very large, very dangerous boxes full of eggs.

Twenty-six cubes orbited around Hector as he observed the efficient packaging line of Rainlords carefully loading up the many pods full of non-servants. He’d gotten into the habit of maintaining objects in orbit wherever he went, thinking of it as a kind of background practice. This many still required considerable concentration, though.

His gaze fell upon an approaching man whose face he recognized but only vaguely. When the name hit him, however, Hector’s eyes widened, and he shifted uncomfortably.

That was Melchor Blackburn coming toward him. The one they called Darktide.

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Diego Redwater, Carlos Sebolt, and a few others had been meeting with the Akassu hunters in order to keep everyone abreast of any and all developments on that front, but the news hadn’t been encouraging. According to Diego, treasure hunters all over the city had been growing increasingly demoralized in their efforts, which was one of the reasons why the Akassu had sided with the militia in the first place. More and more, they were trying to find alternate means of making their fortunes, as most people now believed that either the treasure did not exist or that it was nowhere near Babbadelo.

It didn’t help that there were conflicting accounts of how this treasure-hunting fever even got started in the first place. Diego said that they’d heard three separate tales now, the only shared trait among them being that it all began about a year ago when a foreigner came to town.

In the first tale, the foreigner boasted loudly to all who would listen that he had lain eyes and even his hands on the great treasure, Sosho’Diyu. As evidence, he flaunted a small cache that was full of precious gems, which he had supposedly plundered from it. Furthermore, he claimed that he intended to return for the remainder of the treasure soon, and no one had seen him since.

In the second tale, the foreigner was not alone. He had some sort of terrible partner, and the whole reason they were able to boast of their wealth was because they ran rampant through the city, stealing it from everyone. They pillaged whatever they pleased and even abducting women and children. Nevermind that no one seemed able to identify any of these abducted people. Diego and Carlos believed this story had the least credibility.

Page 1356

As for local politics, the Rainlords managed to negotiate an uneasy truce among the warring factions by using the food they’d captured as leverage. Zeff and Axiolis did not seem confident that the peace would last once the Rainlords left Babbadelo, but there was nothing for it, they said. There was only so much they could do for the people here, they said.

And Hector would have liked to say that they were wrong, but he couldn’t. He was far from an expert on political matters. If Garovel agreed with them, then so did Hector, even if he didn’t want to.

That being said, Hector certainly didn’t believe the Rainlords were being negligent or lazy. They were even going so far as to take custody of several important political prisoners who--according to varied accounts by the government, militia, treasure-hunters, and citizenry--posed the greatest threat to a continued peace. The Rainlords would be bringing these prisoners with them to Capaporo, where more secure facilities awaited them.

And since Capaporo was also their own destination, that was as far as they intended to take the worm eggs as well. Custody of the eggs would transfer to the local government there, who would then deliver them to Ornamegir.

Hector hoped that would be enough for things to remain settled, but he was already thinking of when he might be able to return and check up on the state of things in Babbadelo. Probably not for quite a long while, he figured.

And of course, there was still the matter of the treasure, the Sosho’Diyu.

He would have been lying if he said he wasn’t interested in finding it. It was hard not to be, what with how the reapers talked about it, about the potential it held. Moreover, he kept thinking about how useful it might be for revitalizing Warrenhold. Assuming it was money. The reapers seemed to think it was something else, though they didn’t know what.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Page 1355

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“Hand signals are the most common in practice,” said Asad, “but you could conceivably use any manipulable part of your body to achieve the same result.”

“Words, as well,” said Zeff.

Hector cocked an eyebrow. “Words?”

The Lord Elroy nodded. “Yes, you assign your skill to a certain word. You name it, essentially. It can work very well.”

“However,” said Asad, “it must be said that in the heat of combat, speaking the name of your attacks before you do them can certainly give your opponent an edge, especially if they have good intel on you.”

“Yes, but it must also be said that such tactics can serve to intimidate or confuse them,” said Zeff. “There are pros and cons to it.”

Do you have any personal examples of named attacks?’ said Garovel, sounding somewhat amused.

“Not currently,” said Zeff, “but I have been trying to assign my newest skill to a name. I’ve found that it helps if the name itself is befitting, but that can also be... difficult.”

I think “Water Bomb Drill” sounds just fine,’ said Axiolis.

“I think it sounds a bit long and silly,” said Zeff.

“Just stick with movements,” Asad advised Hector. “Save yourself the trouble.”

Hector’s mind was sufficiently blown by all of these revelations. Immediately, new ideas began to stir in his head, and he wanted to spend every waking moment trying to completely revamp his skill set.

It seemed like Zeff and Asad felt similarly with their own powers, along with several other Rainlords who joined them later on, most notably Joana Elroy, and very briefly, Horatio Blackburn.

Hector had been concerned about House Blackburn and would have liked to know more about how they were doing, but Lord Horatio was not particularly talkative, and Hector didn’t want to pry. So again, he decided that could wait until Warrenhold.

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When it came to instructing Hector, the Lords Elroy and Najir seemed somehow even more motivated than before. Hector found them sometimes competing to answer his questions first--which, frankly, wasn’t the most helpful thing in the world. He soon got into the habit of pointing at the one he wanted to explain whenever they started trying to talk over each other.

Importantly, he finally managed to get a full explanation of this “mapping” technique that he’d been curious about.

“Mapping is very valuable for accomplishing feats with your power which might otherwise be too difficult or sophisticated to perform at your current skill level,” said Zeff.

Needless to say, Hector was most certainly listening.

“The core idea,” Zeff went on, “is that we are able to ease the overall burden of concentration on ourselves by making use of simple, physical triggers.”

“We often do it unconsciously, to a limited extent,” added Asad. “I’m sure I have seen you do it already, as well.”

Hector squinted, trying to think back.

“Hand motions are the most common example,” said Zeff. “Strictly speaking, it is not necessary for us to move our hands at all when performing materialization.”

“Which is not to say that our bodies are not necessary,” said Asad. “Our bodies operate as conduits for the power from our brains, but movement itself is not required. It is, however, helpful for concentration. And mapping is simply a more advanced form of this.”

Zeff held up a fist and half-extended his middle and index fingers. “I, for example, have mapped my ability to create highly pressurized water drills to this hand sign.” And sure enough, a small water drill appeared above the knuckles on his fingers. “This particular skill requires constant creation and destruction, as well as a very strong velocity state. When I originally mapped it, it was quite difficult for me to perform. Now it is trivial and made even more so by the mapping.”

Page 1353

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Hector didn’t know how to respond to that.

Alright, fine, let’s suppose for a minute that Rasalased DID give that knowledge to you somehow. What difference would it make? Would it change what you’ve accomplished?

That’s... that’s not the point, Garovel. It’s not about getting the credit. It’s about... agh, it’s about understanding what the fuck is happening. With my own limitations. And--and with... just... the world itself. I mean, shit, Garovel. Trying to understand the world around us doesn’t suddenly stop being important just because it might be... inconvenient. Or unpleasant.

Oho.

What, am I wrong?

Heh. Well, when you put it like that, it’s hard to argue with you.’ The reaper paused, perhaps thinking. ‘But no, I still think you came up with it yourself. True, the timing is a bit suspicious. We only met Rasalased a little while ago, and now you’re doing this. But you know who ELSE we only met a little while ago? Asad and Zeff. And THEY were the ones who actually bothered to teach you about materialization. Therefore, I submit to the committee of your pedantic brain that it was NOT a magical sand god granting you heretofore lost knowledge, and that instead, it was simply inspiration from your new teachers.

Also, if we approach the subject from a completely different angle, then perhaps someone in the past DID think of your idea and just didn’t tell very many people about it. Hell, perhaps someone out there right now already knows about this technique, but they’re keeping that information to themselves, because... well, that’s a smart thing to do. Knowledge like this could be very dangerous, and generally speaking, a wise teacher avoids teaching his enemies how to kill him.

He had to admit that the reaper had made a few good points, but Hector remained dubious nonetheless.

For the most part, though, he tried to focus on his training for now. All other concerns could wait until they had made it safely to Warrenhold.

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With the way everyone was talking about it, Hector wondered if this discovery had truly been his own. Sure, it had felt like it was, but as more time passed, that feeling faded, and his mind searched for other possible explanations.

One in particular popped into his head, and it had bothered him enough that he decided to consult Garovel about it. ‘...I can’t be the first person to have ever thought of this,’ he’d said.

Why not?’ was all Garovel said.

Wh--? What do you mean?! Because I can’t! There’s just no way! I mean, fuckin’... We’re talking about everyone who’s ever lived! It’s just impossible that no one else has thought of this before.

Is that because you think you’re not smart enough?

I... no, well... I mean. Kinda. Yeah. Pretty much. I mean, how many materializers have there been? Like, total? It must be, fuckin’... billions or something, right?

All throughout human history? Mm, probably not billions. Maybe millions. Maybe. Hard to say. Remember that the number of materialization users is a subset of the number of reapers. And there haven’t been THAT many of us, comparatively. If we’re including all reapers who’ve ever existed, I’d only estimate that number to be around fifty million, at most. And even that might be wildly optimistic.

Fifty million is a shitload.

Not really. Fifty million is one twentieth of one billion. And how many humans have ever lived? That number is in the neighborhood of a hundred billion. At least. So the overall pool of materialization “inventors” is probably a lot smaller than you’ve been thinking.

Hector wasn’t buying it. ‘I still don’t think it’s possible.’

Well, whether or not you think it’s possible doesn’t change the fact that it happened. Maybe you should stop being so hard on yourself.

...Or maybe I didn’t really do anything.

Excuse me?

Maybe it was Rasalased who thought of it. Maybe he just planted the knowledge into my head or something.

Ugh, god, don’t even start with that. Just take the fucking credit, please.

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To put it mildly, Asad and Zeff had shown a keen interest in learning how Hector was keeping his iron in orbit. They had insisted on repeated explanations and varied types of demonstrations.

At first, they seemed to be having trouble wrapping their heads around the concept, and after a few hours, Hector had begun wondering if there was something else going on with this technique that he didn’t quite comprehend himself yet.

But no. That wasn’t the problem, he came to realize. The real reason they were having a hard time learning it was simply because he was so bad at explaining it. Ultimately, Asad and Zeff both figured it out and were soon making material orbit around themselves, as well--and much more impressively, too. Zeff managed to make an entire chair for Ramira to sit on and float around him--a feat which she seemed to enjoy greatly, even if it did begin melting rather quickly. Asad, meanwhile, put a dozen different glass swords into orbit, all of varying shapes and sizes.

Needless to say, seeing all of that took a bit of the wind out of Hector’s sails.

Still, Hector didn’t think he would be forgetting their initial reactions anytime soon. The looks of utter confusion and disbelief on their faces--a part of Hector was still reeling from those looks. He wasn’t at all sure what to think.

These were two men whose skill with materialization he revered completely--and not just because of their reputations, but because he had personally witnessed what kind of incredible things they could do. And the idea that he could have anything to teach them? That he could’ve thought of anything that they didn’t already know? Or been taught by someone else who was even more knowledgeable?

Hector was having a hard time accepting this as possible. As were several of the reapers, by the looks of it.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Page 1350 -- CXLV.

“Hmm”?’ said Garovel. ‘What do you mean, “hmm”?

Hector explained himself. It took some time. He had to go over his experimentation and thought process.

When he was done, Garovel just stared at him for a while.

Hector...

...Yeah?

I’ve never seen anyone do such a thing with materialization before,’ the reaper finally said.

And Hector was confused, because Garovel didn’t sound like he was joking or trying to trick him. But then, maybe that was part of the trick.

Garovel turned and floated quickly back toward the others. ‘I need to hear what Asad thinks of this immediately.’

For a brief time, Hector merely stood there, watching him go.

Huh.

Okay, well, maybe it wasn’t a trick.


Chapter One Hundred Forty-Five: ‘The intervening calm...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

The next four days passed with a degree of peace--and indeed, even enjoyment--that Hector had not been expecting. The Rainlords met with both the local government and the Akassu treasure hunters several times to negotiate terms, but despite wishing to attend these meetings, Hector had other things to do.

Most importantly, perhaps, he and Garovel needed to wait for Roman and Voreese at the location that they’d specified in their letter. Garovel said that Roman must have received it by now and could therefore show up at anytime, but unfortunately, even though they turned it into a new camping venture of their own, along with Asad’s family and several Rainlords, Roman and Voreese never appeared.

But that was fine, according to Garovel. There was still the meeting place in Capaporo, and perhaps Roman and Voreese were already there. He instructed Hector to leave an iron message behind in case they appeared here later.

Beyond simply waiting for Roman, however, Hector also spent the four days practicing materialization with Asad and frequently Zeff, who came and went from the meetings, keeping them apprised of all new developments.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Page 1349

Hector found that the initial difficulty with walking had come from trying to maintain the orbit independently around him, but when he visualized all of the motions and shifting angles of creation and destruction as relative to himself--as an extension of himself, even--it became much easier.

But it did require active concentration, still, and that was the real hump that he wanted to overcome. As enjoyable as it was to have a tiny satellite floating around him, he wasn’t really any closer to figuring out this “binding” memory technique.

He supposed the only way forward was to simply continue maintaining its orbit as much as possible, and then eventually, it would become second nature to him. Like riding a bike. Probably.

At length, Garovel finally looked over in his direction again.

Hector, what the fuck?!’ the reaper shouted, still with the echo of privacy.

Hector had expected Garovel to be surprised, but even so, he was a bit taken aback by that reaction. He wasn’t sure whether he should laugh or ask if he’d screwed something up.

Garovel pointed at the cube as it moved. ‘What the hell is this shit?! Are you really doing that?!

Uh... yeah?

The reaper just gave him a look that Hector didn’t recognize.

Hector added a second cube, this time orbiting it along the opposite diagonal path over his other shoulder. ‘I was just, uh... I was just testing some stuff out. Why do you sound so upset?

Garovel took his time answering. ‘...Are you repeatedly creating and destroying new cubes so quickly that they look like one object in continuous motion?

Wha? No, I--that’s... hmm.’ Hector hadn’t even thought to try doing that. And why the hell hadn’t he? It sounded way simpler than the method he’d come up with. Maybe not easier, but definitely simpler.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Page 1348

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That might’ve also explained why the cubes flew so wildly off course. The non-growing sections of the cube would have gained their own, genuine momentum while being pushed along at such a speed by the still-growing sections. Not to mention, they would have begun to bear the effects of gravity--and possibly other environmental conditions? He wasn’t sure.

Hmm.

This was not a minor discovery, Hector felt. Clearly. With it, he would be able to, in effect, manipulate his iron after its initial creation--even to attack. Sure, it wouldn’t be easy and would probably require shitloads more practice, but...

With this, he could evolve his entire fighting style.

He wondered if Zeff and Asad had been intending to teach him this soon. Maybe they didn’t think he would’ve been able to do it. He wouldn’t have thought he could do it, either.

Heh. He wanted see their faces when he showed it to them later. Garovel’s, too, of course.

But first, it needed refinement. He had to practice more.

Abruptly, however, it occurred to him that he’d stopped keeping an eye on the captives. He annihilated his work and then briskly returned where he’d been sitting before. Thankfully, no one seemed to have noticed. He counted the number of captives, just to be sure none were missing.

Rather than sitting back down, though, he remained standing as he set to work again. Now that he knew not to add an accelerative force to the cube’s orbit, he found that it was almost trivial to sustain, almost as if he were keeping it to its path with one of his hands.

He tried out different centers of orbit, around his torso, around his arm, his hand, his leg. They were more difficult but not terribly so. He tried out different angles as well, and found a similar result. Then he tried walking while trying to maintain the diagonal orbit around his torso, and he began struggling again, but not for long. After pacing back and forth a few times, he was starting to get the hang of it.

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Another question was forming in Hector’s head, but he wasn’t quite able to articulate it to himself yet.

He decided to do one more test. He formed another hovering cube, but this time, he purposely made it float into the wall.

Nothing happened. But perhaps that wasn’t strange. Perhaps it needed to float faster. He swung the cube around and increased the speed.

Again, nothing happened. He tried one more time, increasing the speed even further, and sure enough, nothing happened. Not even a sound.

Which seemed strange to him. At that speed, the cube definitely should have made a noise when it collided with the wall. Moreover, the previous two cubes certainly had made noises.

So what was going on here?

Well, there was only one discernible difference that he could see. The first two cubes were distorted, while the third was not. They’d both changed into long, vaguely conical shapes--not identical to each other but still similar enough that it didn’t seem coincidental.

Hector blinked as he realized what had been bothering him. Yes. The reason that third cube hadn’t made a noise when it collided with the wall was because it hadn’t actually collided with it.

That was the way that “growing” his iron was supposed to work. Materialization could not occur within a solid object. He’d learned that very early on. So the cubes shouldn’t have been able to grow into the walls and thereby pierce, because he had been using this growing technique in order to make them move. Regardless of their speed, they should have simply reached the wall and stopped, not even colliding with it or make any noise, which was what the third cube did.

And yet they had.

Because their shape had changed. Because he’d lost control over their growth. The part of the distorted cubes which ended up colliding with the walls must have not been “growing” anymore. They must’ve simply been regular iron at that point.

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For a time, Hector merely sat there, mulling over what he’d just done. He supposed the only explanation was that his degree of control over iron was simply higher than he’d realized. Granted, he had lost control there at the end, but the point of interest was how fast the cubes had gotten before escaping him, not to mention how many revolutions around him that they had made.

It was true that he hadn’t tested the limits of his materialization in a while. And had he achieved emergence recently? He didn’t think so, but as he thought about it, he realized that he wasn’t actually sure--a thought which he found slightly worrisome. Shouldn’t that have been something he could be certain about? Maybe this was all just the result of meditation. Or Rasalased’s “tempering,” perhaps.

Or both?

Agh. He couldn’t help feeling like he was losing himself, somehow. He wished he had more time to practice, to fully understand his current limits. He hated this feeling of unpreparedness. And he’d been feeling it all too often, lately.

He stood. If nothing else, he wanted to use what time he did have as efficiently as possible, and it occurred to him that he should perhaps locate the iron cubes and see what kind of state they were in before trying to draw any further conclusions.

It took a bit of searching, but he found them on the ground in front of an apparent sleeping quarters, having penetrated a second wall beyond the first and left a pair of cracked dents in a third.

He was surprised, however, to find that the cubes were no longer cubes at all. But after thinking about it more, he supposed that only made sense. When he’d lost control, they’d become distorted, because his control was the only thing making them hold their shape.

...And perhaps that was important to know. He squinted as he eyed the dents in the wall before him another time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Page 1345

Hector took a deep breath, found his focus, and put a new cube into orbit.

When it came down to it, it was just a pattern. A fairly complex pattern, sure, but a pattern nonetheless. And if he thought about it like that, then it didn’t seem so difficult to memorize.

Two instances of creation, two instances of annihilation. Top and right, bottom and left. These were the constants. The easiest parts. The real difficulty of it stemmed from the shifting angles at which he had to maintain said constants.

But maybe he could think of the two instances of creation as just one. Two instances of adding to his iron. If he applied the same force to both of them, then...

The cube swung past his vision sooner than he’d expected, then swirled around again, quick as a curving arrow shot, and then again, so fast that it cut audibly through the air, and then several more times at such a speed that he wasn’t sure he was even doing it himself anymore.

Then it flew completely off course and punched a hole through the wall next to him.

Hector stared with an open mouth, not quite sure what had just happened.

He looked around, wondering if someone had taken control of his iron or something, but no one was paying any attention to him--well, aside from a few of the captive Hun’Kui, who were looking worriedly in his direction.

Hmm.

Whatever just happened, he needed to replicate it.

He started over, taking the same steps, trying to repeat his same thought process, and then--

Yep. The second cube did the same thing, making a new hole only a half-meter or so away from the first one.

Oh, wait.

That constant rate of growth he’d applied on the right side... that was equivalent to gravity, wasn’t it? And gravity was accelerative. As in, increasing. So... since there was no counter-force being applied by actual gravity like there was on the top side of the cube... then he’d essentially made the cube grow faster and faster... until his concentration could not keep up and he simply lost control of it.

Huh.

He scratched his head.

That was... almost worryingly easy, Hector felt. He would’ve thought that he’d have more trouble making the annihilation on the left and bottom keep pace with the accelerated growth on the right, but apparently not. It was like he’d barely even needed to think about it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

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He supposed it might prove easier to have it orbit around his brain, so that was where he started. He created the cube directly in front of his face, made sure it was hovering and stationary, then began moving it. He kept his head still as he concentrated, visualizing his work as it curved around to the right and beyond his peripheral vision.

Adding the curve felt a bit tricky, but he wasn’t having any trouble picturing its movement in his mind. He just needed to maintain its course until it curved all the way back around from the left.

He waited, trying not to get so eager to see it reentering his view that he ended up breaking his own concentration. It was on its way. Hopefully. He just needed to focus. It should’ve been getting close. Any second now, and it would--

There it was. It worked. But the sight of it floating there was enough of a relief that it pulled a small laugh from his lips, which did break his concentration. The cube distorted and then plummeted. Rather than destroying it, he let it clatter to the ground and then picked it up.

It was very hot to the touch, he found, and then realized that it would’ve been much more so if not for Zeff’s misty armor drenching and cooling it for him. The constant, low hiss of the armor was somehow easy to forget about, at times. But he knew that if he ever left Zeff’s range, the Undercrust’s searing heat would be sure to remind him. He was just glad that the Lord Elroy’s range was so enormous.

He tossed the lump of iron into the air and annihilated it again.

Alright, well, he’d come up with something that required active concentration. Now, this “binding” technique could convert it into something that didn’t require concentration...

...How the hell was he supposed to pull this off, exactly? Purely through memorization? Really? What was the best way to commit something like this to memory?

Shit. Maybe this technique was too advanced for him, right now. Come to think of it, the way they’d talked about it kinda suggested as much...

Eh, whatever. He wasn’t afraid of failing. He’d already failed harder at so many other things. Important things. This was kiddie shit.

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Hector gave it a shot. He began with an iron cube hovering over the palm of his hand, just as before. It still fascinated him, simply looking at it, falling eternally in place without ever changing shape. He concentrated and started adding on to it from the right while simultaneously annihilating from the left. And of course, he also had to make sure that he didn’t stop adding to it from the top while still annihilating it from the bottom, too.

It actually worked. The cube floated to the right, out of his hand, and he couldn’t help smiling to himself.

It became unsteadier as it drew farther away from him, however, and then its shape distorted.

He frowned and started over.

Maintaining that level of concentration was difficult enough, but he also had to keep in mind that the angles of both creation and annihilation were constantly changing as well. And worse still, the distance from himself--slight though it was--also seemed to impact his level of precision just enough to mess him up.

For such a simple trick, it sure demanded a lot of concentration. He was starting to understand why he hadn’t seen anyone else doing this so far. It probably wasn’t worth all the effort. He was probably just wasting his time.

But still, he didn’t want to give up. Because, somehow, it felt more personal than usual. Like he was inventing something. Even though he was sure someone else had figured this all out ages ago, he wanted to keep puzzling it out for himself, wanted to uncover all the little secrets that he could without relying on anyone else for help.

And, hmm. Maybe there was a simple solution to the distance problem. Maybe he could make the cube orbit around him in a perfect circle. Then the concentration requirements would never change.

He blinked at himself, mulling it over in his head a couple more times.

But what would it need to orbit, exactly? His body? Or his brain?

Hmm.

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Hector had the distinct feeling that things were going to start moving very quickly very soon, so he wanted to make use of this downtime while it lasted. He tried contacting Emiliana again with the Shard in his pocket, but when he received no response, he decided to work on his materialization skills.

He wanted to attempt the “binding” technique that Zeff and Asad had shown him earlier. He figured that would be more useful than simply meditating. And besides, he couldn’t very well close his eyes when he was supposed to be watching the captives.

First, however, he had to think of how to attempt the technique. The whole idea behind binding--as he recalled Asad and Garovel explaining it--was to convert a task that required active concentration into a task that did not.

That was about all the information he had to go on, though. He considered asking Garovel for more details, but the reaper was in the middle of a conversation with Atalim and Ezura.

Hmm.

Something that required active concentration...

What about making his iron move through the air? It was one thing to add velocity to a created object and be done with it, but could he possibly make that object fly according to his will? Against gravity, even?

No, strictly speaking. From everything he’d been told, as well as his own experimentation, such a feat was flatly impossible.

But Hector wondered if he could at least make it look like it was happening.

Certainly, he couldn’t control his iron once it was created. That seemed to be the First Law of Materialization, if such labels existed. But even so, he could always grow more iron out of his already-created pieces. And growth was a kind of movement, wasn’t it? And that other technique that Zeff and Asad had taught him earlier... the perpetually falling object...

Ideas swirled through his head, even though he couldn’t quite imagine any practical applications just yet.

Maybe, instead of keeping the falling object perfectly still, he could add on to it in a different direction while also annihilating it from the opposite direction. Wouldn’t that give the object the appearance of movement?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Page 1341

Again, the rest of us aren’t Rainlords,’ said Qorvass.

True,’ Ezura admitted. ‘Then shall we go see what our kin have to say about the matter?

That made everyone go silent. She’d pretty much won the debate with that, Hector felt.

Evangelina’s eyes fell upon him, however. “What does the young Lord Goffe think?”

Hector was surprised, but after a moment, he supposed he shouldn’t have been. It was more or less his fault that they’d even come here in the first place, after all.

But the way she was eyeing him... Perhaps he was mistaken, but he felt like she wasn’t just asking a question. He felt like she was about to pass judgment on him, like he’d made some mistake and she was waiting for him to either explain himself or apologize.

Maybe that was just how she always looked, though. He’d noticed a similar quality in some of the other Rainlord leaders, particularly Zeff.

Either way, he didn’t see much point in letting it bother him. Not after all that had happened.

“...I think I would like to see things through,” he said. “And... securing all this food won’t be very helpful if a bunch of worms kill everyone before they can eat it.”

Diego laughed, but Evangelina’s expression did not change, and her gaze lingered on Hector for a bit longer before Asad spoke up again.

“Well, whatever the case, someone needs to go tell Zeff and everyone else what we have found.”

A bout of volunteering and counter-volunteering intervened, until at length, the group was satisfied that Diego and Imas would go together while Asad, Hector, Jada, and Evangelina would remain here to watch over the captured Hun’Kui. The pair soon departed, and Hector and the others found a place to sit while they waited.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Page 1340

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Well, this is just wonderful,’ said Garovel.

“None of this changes the fact that we should not leave the eggs here,” said Evangelina.

We could turn them over to the government,’ suggested Qorvass.

And what would stop the militia from stealing them back?’ said Ezura.

That would be up to the government to figure out,’ said Qorvass. ‘We came here altruistically for the food. We do not have to make the eggs our problem, as well.

That’s true,’ said Garovel. ‘And we still don’t have a plan for distributing the food, either. It might be best to just turn everything over to the government and walk away.

Ezura tilted her head. ‘You surprise me, Garovel. I thought you boldest among us.

I just want to make sure we consider all of our options,’ said Garovel. ‘But thank you, I think.

“I think we should go all in,” said Diego. “Let’s talk to this Akassu group. Maybe we could partner with them in moving the eggs. From the sound of things, if we don’t move them, then no one will. Seems like a good opportunity for us. Throw a bit of our weight around, do some good, collect a reward, maybe partake in a bit of treasure-hunting ourselves while we’re at it?” He looked around for approval. “C’mon, this is right in our wheelhouse. I can’t be the only one thinking this? Am I the only Rainlord here?”

Qorvass hovered around Asad’s head. ‘As a matter of fact, you and the Lady Stroud ARE the only Rainlords here, yes.

Diego scratched his head. “Huh. But hey, the reapers count, too, so that’s four of... twelve. Hmm. Alright, I see your point.”

I agree with Diego,’ said Ezura. ‘We should not balk at this opportunity. ‘The rain fears not the torch.’

Page 1339

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Diego raised both hands defensively. “Look, I’m just saying, it would be a shame if we destroyed them when someone might be needing these eggs for something important, like creating a vaccine for some terrible illness that we don’t know about.”

Even Yangéra, the man’s own reaper, was looking dubious. ‘And your concern has nothing to do with the fact that these eggs might be worth a lot of money.

Diego smiled. “Hey, if we get rewarded for doing god’s work, then so much the better, right?”

Wow.

Ultimately, they decided to wait until Asad and Imas finished their questioning. It didn’t take much longer, as the Sandlords did not seem to be having trouble getting the captive Hun’Kui to talk.

“A deal was struck between the cities of Babbadelo and Ornamegir,” Asad explained. “The eggs were to be transported from here to there under armed escort, purportedly for some kind of pressing research by the Cadaculos, which is the largest medical facility in the Higher West layer.”

“Ha!” Diego exclaimed. “See?!”

Hector heard several reapers sigh in unison.

Yangéra rubbed her skull with a bony hand. ‘I can’t believe he was right...

“What else did you learn?” asked Diego.

Imas picked up where her brother left off. “The eggs were supposed to leave Babbadelo over a month ago, but the railway line that they need to use also happens to pass very close by a recently discovered worm nest.”

There was more sighing.

“Both the government AND the militia around here have been trying to organize a heavier escort, but with a damned rebellion going on, they can’t cooperate on anything,” said Imas. “Not to mention, people aren’t exactly lining up to be a part of such a dangerous mission.”

“The militia has managed to enlist the help of one of the larger treasure hunting groups,” Asad added. “The Akassu. That’s why so many of these guys are wearing green. The hunters were much more eager to cooperate with us than the militiamen.”

Page 1338

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And certain morons consider that sludge a delicacy,’ said Garovel. ‘Though, I suppose they could also want these for scientific purposes. Regardless, I thought the practice of capturing these things was outlawed ages ago.

I am fairly certain that it was and still is wildly illegal,’ said Atalim. ‘But invariably, that never completely kills demand. In less reputable circles, such laws only serve to drive up the price.

Maybe that’s what all this is really about. To the right buyer, these eggs could be worth more than all the food in the city.

Hmm. Perhaps we should inform the others of our discovery before getting lost in speculation,’ said Atalim.

Fine, if you wanna be all smart and pragmatic-like.

They reconvened with the rest of the group and learned that they had not been alone in their findings. Two more warehouses full of rations and foodstuffs were nearby, apparently, and both contained a vacuum-sealed chamber of their own.

Asad and Imas took point on questioning the captives while everyone else discussed what to do next.

“I believe we should destroy the eggs and be done with it,” the Lady Stroud was saying.

I don’t disagree,’ said Garovel, ‘but that would be incredibly dangerous to do in the city. If even the smallest whiff of pheromone escapes, Babbadelo will be swarmed with worms inside twenty-four hours. I think the safest thing to do is take the boxes away from civilization and THEN destroy them.

“That sounds reasonable,” said Evangelina.

“Whoa, whoa, hold up,” said Diego. “I don’t think we know enough to make that call yet. These things are incredibly difficult to get your hands on, right? What if... someone really needs them?”

The reapers all just looked at him.

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Garovel floated up from behind him in order to inspect the gray box more closely. Atalim and Jada joined as well.

...Is this what I think it is?’ said Atalim.

Garovel sighed publicly. ‘Yeah... yeah, I’m pretty sure it is.

Hector found the door he’d been looking for. Its outline was so thin that it blended in with the rest of the box and rendered itself almost invisible. The handle was barely noticeable as well--just a small indention in the wall where it looked like he was supposed to pull.

He didn’t think he wanted to open it anymore, though. Sure enough, Garovel’s next words reaffirmed his bad feeling.

Don’t open this,’ the reaper said. ‘You understand me? No matter what. Do. Not. Open it.

Hector let Jada be the one to ask.

“Why? Do you know what is in here?”

I can make an educated guess,’ said Garovel. But he neglected to elaborate, as if dreading to.

“...And?” pushed Jada.

...Eggs.


Chapter One Hundred Forty-Four: ‘Thy toxic prize...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

“And what is so terrible about eggs?” the young Lady Najir asked.

Hector, meanwhile, already had some idea where this was going. The discussion he’d had with Garovel on the way down to the Undercrust was still fresh in his mind.

Atalim was the one who answered her, however. ‘Worm eggs,’ was all he said.

Jada’s expression shifted from curiosity to flat displeasure.

This box is vacuum sealed,’ said Garovel. ‘And given how large it is and that it doesn’t appear to be refrigerated, there’s pretty much nothing else that could be inside.

Hector figured he should take a turn asking the obvious question. “Worm eggs need to be vacuum sealed?”

Indeed,’ said Atalim. ‘They secrete a kind of sludge, which gives off pheromones. And most species of worm possess a terrifyingly good sense of smell. Greatworms in particular.

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“Abbi worries over you,” said Jada. “He did not want any harm to come to you.”

By now, Hector was reasonably sure that abbi was a Valgan word referring to Asad. “But that... doesn’t explain why you decided to come.”

“Abbi worries over you. I worry over abbi.”

Hector supposed he couldn’t argue with that. Asad still had not fully recovered from his encounter with the Marauder of Calthos. Jada certainly had every reason to be concerned about him.

But Hector was also beginning to see how these sorts of things could very easily spiral out of control. Various strong-headed and well-meaning people all concerned about each other, all taking steps to protect each other, only for it to escalate matters in unexpected ways.

That was the kind of thing that a lord should be mindful of, Hector supposed.

Ugh.

For now, at least, he could be glad that the situation here had gone smoothly, more or less. There was still the matter of locating all of the stolen goods and ensuring fair distribution, but Hector was feeling good about their prospects now. And he felt even better when he and Jada entered the warehouse that he’d spotted earlier and found it filled to the rafters with food.

Most of it looked just as weird as the stuff he’d tasted back at the inn. Massive slabs of blackened meat, pungent even through the heavy cloth it was wrapped in. Tubs of stringy, white noodles and darkly purple rice. Barrels full of reddish, leafy vegetables that Garovel identified as a kind of rhubarb.

Hector wasn’t seeing any fruits, though, and wondered if that trend extended to the Undercrust as a whole. He was about to ask Garovel about it when a large gray box in the corner of the room caught his attention. He made his way over to it, looking for a door.

Oh my fucking god,’ said Garovel.

And Hector stopped, recognizing the reaper’s tone all too well. He didn’t even want to ask for elaboration.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Page 1335

Jada hesitated visibly at the inquiry, then deferred to Atalim.

I am afraid we cannot tell you,’ the reaper said.

Oh, come now,’ said Garovel. ‘We’re all friends here. And besides, Hector and I have met the Dry God. AND he trusts us. That must lend us credibility, right?

Your trustworthiness is not in question,’ said Atalim. ‘The real problem is that one can never know who may be listening. It is for the best if--

“Plutonium,” Jada whispered, having stepped closer.

Hector’s eyes widened.

“Materialization,” she added.

Atalim growled lowly. ‘Jada. Your father shall hear of this.

The young woman was not deterred. “In truth, it is not as dangerous as it sounds,” she went on quietly. “Even normal people would not be harmed unless they were exposed for a long period of time. Or unless I used certain isotopes. Or soul-strengthening.”

Wow,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ve never heard--

Jada held up a finger. “It is too easy for reapers to be overheard,” she whispered.

Mm,’ said Garovel. Then, privately, he relayed his thoughts to Hector.

“...Garovel has never heard of someone having a man-made element as their ability,” he said softly.

Jada paused, seemingly listening to Atalim. “...No element is truly man-made. Only discovered.”

Hector listened to Garovel again. “...Even so, they do seem to be rarer.”

“...As they are in nature.”

Hector had a question of his own now. “Ah... but if it’s not that dangerous, then why all the secrecy?”

“Because,” said Jada, “if the wrong people discovered that I can create something so valuable, they will come for me. Or simply try to kill me.”

Hector understood.

“I am very grateful that I did not need to use it today.” She glanced at Atalim. “My father will be grateful as well.”

Now Hector didn’t understand. “No offense, but... if that’s the case, then why did you come with us? You could’ve stayed at the inn with the Rainlords.”

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Page 1334

The words took Hector by surprise, as he wasn’t even looking at her and had been eyeing a large warehouse on the other side of a line of smaller buildings.

And now that he was thinking about it, he and she had been spending a lot of time together lately, and yet he hadn’t heard the young woman speak very much at all. He remembered her talking to the Elroys a fair amount during the trip to Dunehall, but he wasn’t sure she’d ever uttered a single word to him directly.

Now that she definitely had, though, Hector was suddenly nervous, as it reminded him how little he actually knew of her.

“I feel I should thank you for protecting us the way you did,” she said.

Oh shit, and she was really nice, too? Why the hell was this happening now? ‘Garovel, help...

Tell her it was no big deal,’ the reaper said privately. ‘And sound manly.

Hector frowned and looked at her--which turned out to be a bad idea.

This was a proper young lady that was speaking to him. A noblewoman. Those golden yellow eyes that apparently ran in her family easily made for one of the most striking gazes that Hector had ever seen, and combined with the soft contours of her nose, cheeks, and eyebrows, Jada’s face created an uncommon blend of keen innocence.

Goddammit.

This was why he was in the habit of avoiding people’s faces. Especially women’s.

He tried to respond, but his mouth wouldn’t move, perhaps because it knew something that his brain didn’t. He decided to just go with a simple nod, instead. That would be enough, right?

Thankfully, it did seem to satisfy her.

Garovel picked up the slack before the silence grew too long. ‘What is your ability, by the way? We’ve yet to see you use it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Page 1333

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Diego’s whole body smoldered with freezing mist as his power of nitrogen transfiguration clashed with the very atmosphere itself.

And at that moment, all gunfire ceased, and Hector was confused, because he looked around and saw the remaining Hun’Kui laying their weapons down.

He didn’t quite know what to think. There were still quite a lot of them left, and they surely could’ve put up quite a fight, considering how heavily armed they were. And yet they were surrendering so soon?

When he observed the scene a second time, however, he thought he understood. It was Diego--the way the man was standing in the middle of the compound like that, in full view of all the Hun’Kui, having just done what he’d done, looking not entirely unlike some kind of unkillable ice god with that frozen rocket clutched in one hand, while also seemingly poised and awaiting another.

Hector and Jada made their way down from the rooftop and rejoined the others. Everyone shared a similar expression of disbelief and suspicion.

In the end, however, the battle concluded without further incident, and the rest of the Hun’Kui gathered and allowed themselves to be taken prisoner.

Hector certainly had no complaints. That fight could’ve easily gotten much messier. Brief as it had been, a few of the reapers had still taken a bit of a beating, even despite having positioned themselves behind the shields for extra protection. Qorvass sported a clearly visible bullet hole right in the center of his bony forehead. It looked rather awkward to Hector, but the reaper didn’t seem terribly inconvenienced by it.

With all hostiles safely subdued, the group decided to spread out and search the compound. Jada and Atalim chose to remain partnered with Hector and Garovel.

“...I am sorry I could not be of more assistance back there,” said Jada.

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Hector clapped iron around most of them before they got too far, but the now-all-too-familiar sound of a rocket-propelled grenade demanded his attention again. He flung himself and Jada out of its path with a sudden iron pillar, but the force of explosion threw them even farther than he’d wanted, and they went sailing through the wall of a small tower together.

Jada was first on her feet and helping Hector to his, and without even time to think, they were already storming up a flight of stairs while being chased by more gunfire from more yet-unseen shooters.

At the next floor, they encountered a group of four Hun’Kui who, by their expressions, had not realized they were there.

Hector added them to his collection of iron statues.

They found a balcony on the left, along with still more gunfire. This time, however, the bullets were quickly cut short, and Hector saw why. Asad and the others were pushing through the middle of the compound, drawing fire, encasing assailants in glass, and flattening everyone else.

Hector made an iron walkway from the balcony to the roof of the next building over, and Jada didn’t hesitate to run across first. Hector followed, wondering if she was just reckless or if she actually trusted his workmanship that much. As he ran, he was glad he’d thought to include tiny ridges in the iron for added grip. It was a trick he’d noticed in some of Asad’s creations and had been wanting to try for himself.

He heard another RPG launch and saw it heading for Asad’s group, but it never found its target or even exploded. Instead, Diego Redwater bounded up a stack of crates and snatched it out of the air mid-flight, freezing it solid in an instant--a feat which, frankly, Hector wouldn’t have even thought physically possible in temperatures like these.

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Hector moved to eliminate the rest of the drones as well, but he found that they had already been taken care of by glass and were joining his own batch in the bowl below.

The group soon reached the platform, and briefly, Hector got a sprawling view of the military compound that sat upon it.

But only briefly.

A kind of hissing whoosh stole his attention, and he immediately saw the rocket-propelled grenade that it belonged to. Its brightly burning form left little doubt that it, too, carried the threat of ardor, and Hector was about to try to divert its path with materialized iron, but Asad’s quartz beat him to it.

Rocket met glass, and the resulting explosion was so fierce that it still reached them and tore Asad’s glass elevator to pieces, sending the group toppling off in all different directions.

Hector caught himself, Jada Najir, and Diego Redwater on an iron slide, which carried the three of them smoothly down to the platform full of hostiles, and they all hit the metal ground running. More blazing gunfire erupted, and there was no cover to be found--not from these bullets. The small building in front of them might as well have not been there, and indeed, as they ran sideways, the gunfire bisected it horizontally, making the structure buckle under its own weight.

Several shots grazed Hector’s head and legs, and he could feel that whole chunks of flesh were just gone, exploded apart. But he was still running, and the regeneration was doing its work, and that was all that mattered.

Shields out, they rounded the collapsed building and finally had a clear view of their attackers--a firing line of twenty or so Hun’Kui in various types of deeply green garb. When they saw Hector, Jada, and Diego all barreling toward them, they immediately stopped firing and scattered.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Page 1330

“If that is the case, then there is no sense in attempting stealth,” said Evangelina. Her long, raven-black skirt flowed wildly with every step she took. When they’d first set out from the inn, Hector had thought it rather impractical attire for combat, but after seeing the way the woman could move in it, he was glad he hadn’t said anything.

We should assume that they are more heavily armed than anyone we have met thus far,’ said Qorvass. ‘It would be best to avoid running headlong into a hail of ardor-infused bullets, no?

The Lady Stroud’s face remained stolid, but she didn’t say anything.

Her reaper, however, chimed in. ‘That may not be an option, either,’ Ezura said, and she motioned upward.

A fleet of blinking white specks were pouring out from the platform above. Hector wasn’t quite sure what they were, but apparently Asad was, because quartz raised up from below the group and started carrying them diagonally away.

Blindingly bright spotlights fell upon them, and then a storm of flaming bullets arrived, chasing after Asad’s zigzagging work as it pushed the group ever higher and closer to their objective.

The shields came up, and everyone bunched together to form a protective wall around Asad and the reapers. A flurry of bullets occasionally washed over them, pinging off the shields like hail, but Hector was not pleased to see the many dents they left behind.

Ardor-infused, indeed. If they could do that kind of damage to the metal of Haqq’s shield, then he didn’t want to imagine what they would do to a person. Or a reaper.

As they neared the platform, Hector caught clearer sight of the blinking specks and realized that they were a small army of hovering drones.

And they were in range.

Hector’s free hand flexed, and iron clapped around every drone in his line of sight. They dropped instantly, and Hector pulled an iron bowl up from below to catch them like so much popcorn, not wanting them to fall out of sight and kill some poor bystander.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Page 1329

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...Okay,’ said Hector.

Don’t gimme that shit. My entire worldview is crumbling over here, and all you’ve got for me is “okay”? I don’t know what’s real anymore, you son of a bitch.

...Then why do you sound more excited than upset?

Excuse me? I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.

I’m sure you do.

You must be going crazy. It’s the only explanation. Crazy Hector, that’s what they’re gonna start calling you if you’re not careful.

Right.

Hector the Crazy. Hector “Crazy” Goffe. Crazy Hector and the Crazies.

Did you just put me in a band?

Oh, man, I would love to see you as the lead singer of a band.

I’d sooner face Ivan again.

What kind of band would it be, you think? Heavy metal?

By the time the group’s destination came into view, Hector was more than ready for a fight to rescue him from this conversation.

It was a hulking platform suspended in midair by a host of thick cables. It wrapped all the way around one of the city’s enormous pillars and was positioned about halfway up to the next layer of streets and buildings. The group had already traveled up two layers on the way here, and the view to either side of Hector was not something he would soon forget, he thought. Like a sea of fireflies flickering in the darkness, both above and below--some moving, some not, but all reminding him of life, of how many people were still relatively nearby, even if he couldn’t see any of them.

“Hmm,” said Diego Redwater, staring up at the platform above their heads. “That looks like a defensive position, if I’ve ever seen one. I guess they’re expecting us, eh?”

“We were not exactly subtle on our way here,” said Asad. “No doubt, they received plenty of warning.”

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Of course it’s the point,’ said Garovel. ‘But Hector. Come-the-fuck-on. I warned you back in Kuros, back when I was asking if you wanted to go meet Chergoa. I said we’d be stepping into territory that we were not ready for. And honestly, my boy, you’ve done far better than I ever could have hoped.

Hector made no response.

The reaper’s boney face twisted as he kept pace with Hector. ‘You really don’t agree? Hector. Marshrock was amazing enough, but Dunehall, too?

But that was... I mean... I don’t know what that was. But I know that it wasn’t something reliable.

Garovel paused. ‘Something reliable?

Like... I don’t think I could do it again. It was just... It was dumb luck, is all it was.

Mm, I dunno about that. I think you’re underestimating yourself.

I don’t.

Yes, I see that now. I can’t believe I ever thought you were being overconfident. Holy shit.

Ugh. I just... I... I mean, I’m not wrong, am I? The Rainlords are going to live with us. Under my roof. They’re gonna be relying on me. So...’ He had to consciously avoid sighing in front of everyone. ‘I have to become more reliable than just dumb luck. I don’t know how, but... I have to.

Hector. You can’t protect... ah... Hmm.

Hector threw him a glance. ‘Wha?

Well, uh,’ said Garovel, ‘I was about to say that you can’t protect the Rainlords from everything that’s threatening them, but... frankly, I don’t know what you’re capable of, anymore. After Rasalased and Haqq’s shield and that shit you pulled with the Salesman-of-Goddamn-Death... and now whatever-the-hell is going on with you and the Shards... I just. You... I don’t know. Now that I think about it, maybe I’M the one who’s underestimating you.

Uh... what?

Argh! Fuck you! Now you’re making ME confused! None of this means that we shouldn’t still be cautious in general! Or that you should stop listening to my sage wisdom, goddammit!

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I wasn’t trying to insult you, Garovel... Believe me, I know how much you want to save innocent lives. I mean, shit, without you, I wouldn’t even... uh... y’know... I just--

Yeah, alright, fine, we both know what an incredible humanitarian god-being I am, but that’s only part of what I was getting at. The real point, my young friend, is that you let yourself get a bit too worked up back there. You and I are supposed to be the reasonable ones here, remember?

Sure, but...’ Hector didn’t quite know how to argue that point just yet. He only knew that he wanted to. ‘Mrgh...

Look, I get it. You’re feeling more confident in your abilities and want to help as many people as possible. That’s a good thing. Great, actually. Especially considering where you started. But not everything--

No, that’s not it,’ said Hector. ‘That’s not it at all...

The reaper fell quiet a moment. ‘What do you mean?

It’s not... agh... it’s not that I’m feeling more confident... In fact, it’s the exact opposite.’ Hector’s gaze drifted from side to side as he eyed his companions. ‘If anything, I’ve been... really fucking frustrated with myself.

...Why?’ Garovel sounded genuinely incredulous, as if he’d just heard something completely nonsensical to him.

Because! Garovel...! I’ve barely been able to do ANYTHING lately. Everybody’s been having to protect me.’ Hector could hardly believe that he was having to explain something so obvious. ‘And I hate that.

Hector... if that’s what you really think, then you’re an idiot.

No, I’m not. YOU’RE an idiot.

Really? That’s your comeback?

Shut up. When you said that these people here were in trouble, I was just... I was SO ready to help them, because it sounded like I actually COULD! For a change! And isn’t that the whole point?!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Page 1326

We need to be extra careful how we resolve this situation,’ Garovel was saying, not for the first time. He’d been trying to explain something, but the constant interruptions from hostile Hun’Kui had been getting in the way, and even now, he looked like he was waiting for something to cut him off again.

The reapers didn’t really need to be looking around so much, Hector knew. They could sense the locations of every soul around them if they just concentrated, but after Dunehall, Hector couldn’t really blame them for their paranoia here. If aberrations were able to operate undetected by reapers, then it didn’t seem outside the realm of possibility that these Hun’Kui and their new technologies might have a similar surprise in store.

Thankfully, though, that didn’t seem like it was going to be the case.

Garovel was taking a while to finish his thought, so Hector decided to give him a push. ‘What do you mean?

Hmm? Oh, yeah. Um. Look, let’s say we beat up these food-stealing pricks and start handing it out to everyone. Let’s even say that there’s plenty of food to go around and that we don’t have to worry about rationing it at all. What happens after we leave Babbadelo?

Uh...

How do we know that someone else won’t pick up where these assholes left off?

Hmm...

The answer is that we don’t know,’ said Garovel. ‘That’s the problem. This place is unstable as hell, and that’s not something we can realistically fix unless we stay here indefinitely and work on keeping the peace ourselves.

Hector frowned. He had to admit, that was good point. ‘...Are you saying we should turn back?

I’m saying there’s only so much we can hope to accomplish for the locals here. It’s not as simple a matter as you seem to have been thinking. And before you say anything else, do NOT give me any of that cavalier sass from earlier, you prick. Coming up with terrible plans is MY area of expertise, remember? And I don’t appreciate being treated like I’m some kind of lazy piece of shit who doesn’t care about helping people.

That’s not what I was--

Yeah, sure it wasn’t.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Page 1325

As they walked, Hector had many more opportunities to witness--and indeed experience--the chaos of Babbadelo first-hand. They’d been attacked before, but now it was almost constant, probably because they didn’t have intimidating numbers on their side anymore. Nearly every street had a new group of Hun’Kui bandits who seemed keen to test them. Several tried to extort a toll beforehand, but just as many attacked without warning.

It never went well for the assailants. They were rarely ever armed, and even when they were, the reapers noticed it immediately, having become hyper-aware of the threat ever since their first encounter with it.

But the fact that these people weren’t armed and yet were still so bold as to attack them anyway... it spoke to Hector of desperation. And Garovel agreed. Maybe some of them were just being assholes, but a lot of them were probably trying to feed themselves or their families in whatever way they could.

It was more than enough reason to go easy on them, Hector felt. And the others seemed to agree, excepting the Lady Stroud. She didn’t kill anyone, but she dealt out plenty of broken fingers, hands, arms, and ankles. She just about pulled a guy’s leg off before her reaper, Ezura, told her to stop.

Hector wondered if he should ask her to return to the inn. He doubted she would listen to him, but maybe the others would be able to convince her. Regardless, he decided to hold off and just keep an eye on her.

At length, the frequency of attacks began to die down again. Hector wasn’t sure if they’d just been passing through a particularly bad area of the city or if the attackers had realized it was a lost cause.

Either way, this sudden calm, though welcome, was rather unsettling, in its own way. Hector could see the reapers constantly scanning their surroundings.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Page 1324 -- CXLIII.

Hector needed a little time to consider his response to that. “...I’d rather you guys didn’t get involved.”

“Guys? What guys?” Diego folded his arms. “I’m not bringing anyone else, are you?”

“I just don’t want the Rainlords getting mixed up in anything that they don’t need to. You’ve all been through so much already.”

“I wasn’t planning on telling anyone my name. And considering that you’re practically a walking rain cloud, I’d say you look more like a Rainlord than I do.”

Hector had to admit, that was a good point.

The door to the inn opened again, and Asad exited, immediately followed by Jada, Imas, and all three of their reapers.

“I hope you weren’t planning on doing anything reckless without me,” said Asad.

The door swung open yet again, and more familiar faces came flowing out.

Hector just kind of scratched one of his eyebrows and sighed.


Chapter One Hundred Forty-Three: ‘O, meddling fellowship...’

Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Including himself, Hector’s raiding party grew to be six strong, but that certainly wasn’t because no one else wanted to join. In the end, he’d refused more volunteers so as not to break up any of the individual families. And thankfully, the heads of each House agreed with him on that front, so no one tried to argue with him. Everyone understood that if too many people went, then it would jeopardize the safety of their sleeping brethren.

That resulted in an entourage of Hector, Diego, Asad, Imas, Jada, and finally Evangelina Stroud.

The only reason he’d agreed to the Lady Stroud joining was because she was the head of her own House, and there was really no refusing her. Just like Diego, she was the only Stroud present, thanks to the events at Rheinhal. Unlike Diego, however, she’d actually been there when the battle against the Gargoyle of Korgum took place.

And whenever anyone brought it up, she did not hesitate to give her feelings on the subject. The Lady Stroud was certainly no fan of the Gargoyle, or the Vanguard in general. From what Hector understood, Zeff had been there as well, but he’d barely talked about it, perhaps because Evangelina seemed to have the issue so well in hand.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Page 1323

((The Wednesday Triple: page 3 of 3))
Hector was nearly at the door already, so he said, ‘I’ll be outside.

Okay,’ said Garovel.

Hector exited the inn and found a nice chunk of the building’s rocky wall to lean against.

From here, he had a clear sight of the camping group. Part of the reason he’d wanted to come out here was to check how they were doing. Tall, metal walls had been erected in the middle of the park, no doubt the work of a servant, and Hector recognized several of the faces patrolling the perimeter. A few of them were even walking along the walls they’d put up.

The greater view of Babbadelo wasn’t too bad, either. Gargantuan pillars bathed in dim amber. And he hadn’t noticed before, but now he could see platforms extending between many of the pillars in midair. The city had multiple layers.

It reminded him of Warrenhold. And he wondered if that was a coincidence. Perhaps Stasya Orlov had taken inspiration from the Undercrust when building it.

The door to the inn opened, and Diego Redwater exited. The man looked around, then stopped when he saw Hector. “What’re you doing out here?” he asked.

Diego was something of a curiosity, Hector thought. Aside from being the only red-haired Rainlord that Hector had met, he was also the only member of House Redwater present, the rest having been captured by the Vanguard at Rheinhal. Or killed, possibly. Their intel wasn’t clear.

But that name. Redwater. Hector knew how famous it was. More famous than any other House among the Rainlords. It was a strange feeling, speaking so normally with someone who had a name like that. It made Hector a little uneasy, somehow, but he tried not to let it show. Seemed like that would be rude.

“What’s it to you?” said Hector. Oh shit, wait, that was way ruder.

Diego answered before he could apologize, however. “I just got the feeling you might’ve been venturing off to go beat someone’s ass, is all. And I was thinking I might like to join you.”

Page 1322

((The Wednesday Triple: page 2 of 3))
Where is this militia keeping the food?’ Hector asked.

Garovel paused for a look. ‘Why do you want to know that?

Hector met the reaper’s hollow gaze evenly through the mist. ‘Why do you think?

Hector. This isn’t the sort of thing we should get involved with.

Why not?

Because...’ Garovel broke for a curt sigh. ‘We don’t know how dangerous this militia is. They might have servants with them.

...So?

So the Rainlords have been through enough. They don’t need to get dragged into someone else’s fight right now.

I was already planning to go alone, Garovel.’

The reaper hesitated and glanced around at their friends. ‘Do you really need me to say it? You’re not strong enough, Hector.

He furrowed his brow and turned to leave. ‘We’ll see.

Garovel floated into his path. ‘Okay, wow, holy shit. I’m glad you have so much confidence in yourself, but we don’t even know what kind of resistance we’ll encounter. These ardor weapons are still a mystery, and they could also have some extremely powerful servants on their side, like I just said.

Yeah. Or they could be a bunch of pushovers. I’m gonna go find out.

Hector.’ Garovel didn’t sound like he was going to relent.

Fine,’ said Hector. ‘I’ll just do some scouting first. If they seem too strong, I won’t fight them. Does that sound fair?

Garovel made no response.

Hector grew impatient and started toward the exit. ‘I’ll take that as a yes.

Argh, you don’t even know where to go,’ said Garovel.

So tell me.

And what if I don’t, huh?

Then I guess I’ll just wander around like a jackass until I find it.

Alright, alright,’ the reaper said. ‘Just hold on a second. Let me see if the innkeeper knows anything else that could help.

Page 1321

((The Wednesday Triple: page 1 of 3))
Garovel floated over to him, laughing in the echo of privacy. ‘Look what you’ve started, Hector.

Hector mostly just wanted answers, though. ‘Why is there a food shortage?

Lord Diego,’ said Garovel publicly, grabbing the man’s attention, ‘can you ask the innkeeper for more details about what’s been going on around here?

“I don’t speak Hunese,” said Diego, looking around. “Hold on, I’ll find someone.” He disappeared into the throng of people, then returned a few moments later with Carlos Sebolt, who gave Hector a nod of acknowledgment.

Hector was happy to return one of his own, though he was surprised that Lord Carlos even recognized him. He’d only met the man a couple times, and he hadn’t really spoken to him on either occasion.

Garovel listened in on Carlos’ conversation with the innkeeper. ‘...So, what I’m gathering is that this new government rose to power by promising to redistribute wealth to the lower classes. Ah, I see. The local militia was supposed to hand out food to everyone, but instead, they just started selling it at exorbitant prices.

What the fuck?’ said Hector. ‘They can just DO that?

Well, who’s left to stop them? This type of thing happens all the time. People get so wrapped up in the idea of a revolution that they don’t have a realistic plan for what to do afterwards. And then the few people who still have power, like the ones with guns, see an opportunity. Assuming they didn’t plan to do this from the start, that is.

Motherfuckers...

If they’re lucky, this’ll all sort itself out within a few months or so, but there’s a chance that the militia will establish a more long-term foothold in the city. And between that and this treasure-hunting fever going around, these locals are looking at some rough times ahead.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Page 1320

After a couple more bites, Hector found himself looking around the table for the innkeeper and his son. The quaint dining chamber was packed with people, but Hector only saw Rainlords, the Najirs, and a whole bunch of chattering reapers. When he looked through the open eastern doorway, however, he spotted the kid peeking out from behind the corner there, watching everyone.

Watching everyone eat. And that look on his face. A half-open mouth. Glowing eyes wide with longing.

Hector stopped. He looked at Garovel, but the reaper had gotten swept up in one of the many conversations going on. So many of them were talking at once that Hector could barely even parse out Garovel’s voice in his head.

When he looked to the kid again, the innkeeper was there with him, ushering him away from the doorway.

Hector stood and left the table, bringing the meal that he’d still barely touched with him.

As he approached, the innkeeper seemed both frightened and nervous, so Hector slowed his pace a little in hopes of looking as non-threatening as possible. Perhaps Zeff’s armor cloud wasn’t helping in that regard--in fact, it might’ve even been dangerous for them if he got too close. When Hector set the meal down on the nearest table and backed way, the innkeeper appeared to relax somewhat.

After a nod from his father, the kid grabbed it, and Hector watched him wolf it down.

So it was like he’d thought, after all. Hector had been wondering if he was simply mistaken. It did seem strange to him that the innkeeper would prioritize feeding guests over his own child. Was there some reason for that?

He got his answer when several more Hun’Kui children entered from the next room over, all looking at the innkeeper expectantly--and then at Hector, as well. Perhaps they’d been watching the whole time.

That was a lot of mouths to feed. The man probably felt like he had to prioritize customers or else it would affect his business. And in the long-term, that might very well result in even less food to go around. If any at all.

Either that, or he was simply scared of what all these foreigners would do if he didn’t feed them. Hector supposed that was just as likely.

Diego Redwater appeared suddenly in Hector’s peripheral vision and forced his porridge into the hands of another child.

Hector turned and saw several other Rainlords filing in behind the man.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Page 1319

((The Monday Triple: page 3 of 3))
Garovel grabbed Hector’s shoulder, and Hector felt all of his lingering soreness vanish. ‘Just give it a try,’ the reaper said. ‘I’ve heard it’s not as bad as it looks.

Hector was suspicious. ‘...Why did you just numb my pain?

Zeff’s misty armor is protecting you on the outside, but it won’t save your insides from burning like hell when you eat this stuff.

Hector squinted. If he wasn’t so famished, he might’ve just quit then and there. He looked around the long table to see what everyone else thought of the meal and noticed a few other hesitaters, but none who were flat out refusing. He gave his food another look. ‘What’s this weird porridge stuff?

Uh...

Hector cocked an eyebrow as he waited.

You sure you want me to answer that?’ said Garovel.

Just tell me.

Alright. I’m pretty sure it’s worm.

Hector’s jaw clenched inside his closed mouth, and his whole face went taut, though the constant stream of mist around him rendered it unnoticeable.

The bowl there is made from the dried husk and is also edible, if you’re interested.

He wasn’t.

C’mon, where’s your courage? I told you, so now you’ve gotta try it. You never know. You might like it. Certain types of worms are considered a delicacy.

Fair was fair, Hector supposed. He gathered his composure, grabbed the boxy-spoon utensil in front of him, and tried the wormy porridge first.

Huh.

Now there was a new taste. He had a difficult time even describing it to himself. Meaty was one word for it. Sour was another. But this texture. Chewy and sludgy at the same time. If beef and chicken had been put in a blender until they had a soupy consistency, then perhaps this would be the result.

Mainly, he was just surprised that he didn’t hate it. In fact, maybe it was just because of how hungry he was, but he actually kind of enjoyed it. The same could be said of the romodendra. It was insanely tough, almost like a strip of tree bark, and yet somehow, it complimented the worm pretty well, he thought.

Page 1318

((The Monday Triple: page 2 of 3))
Hector spotted a much smaller Hun’Kui than he’d yet seen, presumably the innkeeper’s son. Hector couldn’t think of any other explanation for that body language--hiding behind the man’s leg and occasionally pestering him as if asking a parent for something.

Hector wondered what the kid was saying and asked Garovel to translate for him.

The kid’s hungry,’ the reaper told him privately. ‘Says he hasn’t eaten in... days.

Hector blinked at that news. ‘Days?

Well, it must be said, Hun’Kui don’t eat nearly as much as surface dwellers do. As I understand it, they have much slower metabolisms, because they don’t need to regulate their body temperatures like we do.’ A beat passed. ‘Or like YOU do, I suppose.

So... you’re saying it’s normal for people down here to go that long without eating?

...No. I think that’s still kinda abnormal, even by their standards.

What did the dad say?

Just to hold on a while longer.

He frowned, but not ten minutes later, the innkeeper announced to the Rainlords that dinner would be served shortly, so Hector supposed he’d been worrying for no reason.

And by the time dinner did arrive, Hector was almost as curious as he was hungry. He’d forgotten to ask Garovel about it before, so he had absolutely no idea what to expect. With environmental temperatures like this, food from the surface would’ve been cooking itself, so what the hell did people eat down here?

Some kind of stringy, reddish-brown seaweed-looking thing, apparently. And a bubbling, porridge-y substance in a wavy, bowl-like shell.

...What is this?’ he asked Garovel, trying his best to keep an open mind.

That’s a romodendra.

What is? This plant thing?

Yeah. There aren’t many plants that can even survive down here, let alone actually GROW.

Uh-huh...

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Page 1317

((The Monday Triple: page 1 of 3))
There was also the not-so-small matter of caring for all the climate-controlled pods. In fact, that was perhaps the biggest challenge of this journey so far. Almost every non-servant among the Rainlords was sleeping in one right now, the few exceptions being those like little Ramira Elroy, whom the Sandlords had given their most advanced heatproofing suits to.

That meant that more than two hundred pods needed to be lugged around and protected. Stacking the pods on huge trolleys was the only thing that made the task feasible, but given that the total number of servants at their disposal was only around fifty or so, it still ended up requiring quite a large percentage of their total manpower.

For the most, it was Lord Diego Redwater and Lady Evangelina Stroud who oversaw the effort and gave the pods the most attention, but Hector saw everyone else either pitching in to help or glancing in their direction frequently. And it wasn’t difficult to understand why. If even one of those pods was damaged, it meant someone’s life. A family member’s life.

No doubt, this was why the Rainlords seemed so grateful for the shields that he’d passed out earlier. He discovered that much of his work had gone toward reinforcing the pods directly. And certainly, an added layer of heavy shields made the pods even more unwieldy than they already were, but that was a sacrifice that the Rainlords did not mind making, apparently.

They unloaded some of the pods and brought them into the inns with them, but the majority remained outside with the camping group. The innkeeper on Hector’s side didn’t look especially pleased with so much floorspace being taken up by unconscious people in pods, but perhaps he was too afraid of the Rainlords, because Hector didn’t see him challenge them on it.

Page 1316

These ardor weapons had everyone on edge, Hector included. Thankfully, they didn’t seem to be that common, but the mere idea that even non-servants could pose a serious threat... It was just more fuel for the Rainlords’ rapidly growing distrust of everyone else.

He could see it in their ranks. The way they talked to each other. The way they stuck so close together all the time. And especially the way they looked at other people. He supposed he should just be glad they didn’t look at him that way.

Keep a close eye on them,’ Garovel told him privately. ‘This kind of behavior is only natural, and it might very well save our lives, but it can be dangerous, too.

You’ve seen people act this way before, I take it?

More times than I can count. The power of groupthink. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just an evolutionary trait. Hugely beneficial toward protecting the “tribe,” as it were. But it also makes it that much easier for someone to overreact, and that’s how innocent people get killed.

But... the Rainlords wouldn’t allow that to happen... I mean, they’re...

I know what you’re trying to say, but don’t be too sure of that. They’re still human. Right now, they’re hurt, and I’m sure they’re feeling vulnerable. And in this world, there exists no better justification for doing something extreme.

Hector tried to take those words to heart. As much as he’d grown to care for these people, as much as he understood what they were feeling, Garovel was right.

In the end, their party decided to settle on a pair of small inns they found adjacent a large, open area--a kind of rocky park, seemingly. Even with both inns together, there wasn’t enough space for everyone, but that was deemed agreeable, because a large group needed to stay outside and keep watch, anyway.